Why & How Breathing Treatments Are Given After Surgery

  • Author Dr. Kimberly Langdon M.D.
  • Publish date
There are several complications that may arise post-surgery; one such complication is breathing trouble. Breathing treatments and other types of respiratory therapy are helpful ways to aid proper breathing and prevent further complications after surgery. These breathing treatments range from simple to complex; as simple as the use of an inhaler, and as complicated as ICU-level care.


Breathing treatments need to be done for numerous reasons; they can be used to treat a disease that is already present, calm an inflamed air passage, and help prevent complicated breathing issues. For patients on ventilators post-surgery, these treatments are included in the routine care and provided to the patients on a regular basis around the clock.

What exactly IS a breathing treatment?

A medication converted into a fine mist and given to the patient to inhale is basically what a breathing treatment consists of. This mist is used specifically to treat respiratory issues. There are various types of breathing treatments given to patients post-surgery; one such example is a nebulizer treatment.

This treatment includes a fine mist of medication along with other medicines and steroids to help bring down the inflammation. More about these treatments will be discussed in later sections.

Breathing deeply

It’s normal for patients to feel weak or sore after surgery. One thing all physicians ask patients to do, especially after surgery, is to breathe deeply. As taking big breaths right after surgery can lead to uncomfortable states, many people do not wish to. However, taking in long breaths of air is extremely important.

Since this is a form of respiratory therapy that you can do on your own, it’s crucial to understand how it should be done. Note that an incentive spirometer can also be used to take deep breaths in the correct manner if you feel you’re not doing it right.

Here is how one can breathe deeply on their own:
  • Sight upright and don’t slouch. Sitting on the edge of the bed with your feet hanging over the side could help with your posture. If not, try raising the head of the hospital bed as high as you can.
  • If your surgical incision is on your belly or chest, then you will need to hold a pillow over the incision before starting the treatment. This will help relieve some discomfort.
  • After taking a few normal breaths, take a slow, deep breath in and hold.
  • Slowly let the air out through your mouth. Make an “O” shape with your mouth as you blow out to aid this process. Just think of yourself blowing out the candles on your birthday cake.
  • Repeat this 10-15 times in a sitting, or as many times your physician has advised you to repeat this.
The exercise of deep breathing is extremely vital, especially if you’ve had surgery of the abdomen or chest. Even though you’ll feel discomfort and pain around the area of incision, this exercise helps prevent potential lung infections, which in effect will slow down the overall process of recovery.

Why are breathing treatments required?

Any individual who is at risk of developing a respiratory complication would be required to undergo breathing treatments. Almost everyone after surgery is required to go through these treatments-mostly as a precautionary method- even if it involves a treatment as simple as an inhaler. Statistics prove that in general, surgical patients have a higher risk of breathing trouble than the average patient.

Additionally, if the patient is on a ventilator during surgery, the process of recovering from surgery increases the risk of developing complications, one of which is lung infections.

Common types of breathing treatments


The devices through which medication is inhaled one puff at a time. Inhalers are the most common type of breathing treatment and are commonly used by people with asthma and other respiratory diseases. They are used to clear up the air passage, reduce potential inflammation and secretion, and prevent the symptoms of asthma.

Oxygen therapy

Many patients need supplemental oxygen after surgery. This is provided through a nasal cannula, a mask, or a ventilator, depending on the state of the patient. The amount of oxygen required also varies from patient to patient.

Nebulizer treatments

This type of respiratory treatment involves an aerosolized medication which is inhaled by the patient for minutes on end. It helps open up airways and decrease potential irritation and inflammation. These treatments also prevent asthma attacks from occurring.


For patients who are not able to clear their airway by coughing, suctioning is a great alternative. Coughing is usually performed to remove secretions from the air passage, and is a vital step towards preventing breathing trouble. Suctioning is performed by attaching a tube into the airway. The other side of it is attached to a suction device.

Ventilator management

Patients who cannot breathe on their own rely on ventilators. This is decided by the physician. Patients who need ventilators will have respiratory therapists taking care of them. The RTs maintain the ventilator and overlook the tubing that attaches the patient to the machine. This form of breathing treatment involves suctioning and mouth care.

Potential Risks

While most breathing treatments are safe, there are some that can increase the heart rate. One such example is Albuterol. Patients who already have rapid heart rates should stay away from such treatments. Such patients should rely on other kinds of medication, such as levalbuterol.

Some of these treatments are bound to make the patient feel uncomfortable for a few short minutes. The feeling won’t last more than 15-20 minutes. Some other risks may include the following:
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Throat, mouth irritation
  • Hyperactivity (found especially in children if the treatment medication involves steroids, but passes shortly).
  • Thrush, which is an overgrowth of yeast in the mouth. To avoid this, rinse your mouth after each round of treatment thoroughly.
  • Arrhythmias, if you are a heart patient. This is a condition where the heart rate fluctuates rapidly.
About author
Dr. Kimberly Langdon M.D.
Dr. Kimberly Langdon M.D.
The author, Dr Kimberly Langdon is a University-trained Physician (OB/GYN) with 2 decades of clinical experience and has delivered over 2000 babies to Central Ohio Mothers.
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